On January 23, Hillel UofT announced the partial success of its Kosher Forward Campaign, which aims to make kosher food options accessible at U of T. Kosher refers to food that is prepared in accordance with traditional Jewish law.
On January 27, U of T Food Services announced that food options that are certified by the Kashruth Council of Canada (COR) as kosher are available at the Grab ‘N’ Go fridge at Robarts Library food court and the Medical Sciences Building. A third location, Goodmans LLP Café, located at the Faculty of Law building, also began to offer kosher options on January 29. Currently, the menu offers COR-certified wraps, sandwiches, and cold salads.
The campaign ran under the leadership of students Sofia Freudenstein and Chaim Grafstein. It involved a public petition, which brought together students, allies, and campus organizations, as well as months of discussion between Hillel UofT and the university. The original petition aimed to establish kosher food options at both food vendors and at residences; the latter has yet to be achieved.
Hillel is a Jewish campus organization with chapters at universities around the world. At U of T, the organization represents 1,000 to 1,500 students.
Food as an accessibility barrier
Hillel UofT Senior Director Rob Nagus wrote to The Varsity about the origin of the campaign: “Noticing a vital need for kosher food options, our Senior Jewish Educator and Campus Rabbi, Rabbi Julia Appel, along with some of our Hillel Student Leaders began conversations with many of our campus partners to explore the best way to move forward with a campaign to address said need.”
Nagus listed the Multi-Faith Centre and the Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Office as two major partners. “The plan was to gather a broad range of support for our campaign before approaching Administration.”
In a letter dated July 12, 2019, Freudenstein and Grafstein appealed to President Meric Gertler for U of T to live up to its commitment to diversity and inclusion by offering kosher food at the university, similar to how it offers vegetarian, vegan, and Halal options. “We believe the University of Toronto loses much by not providing kosher food,” the letter read.
The two campaign chairs stressed that the unavailability of a kosher option poses an accessibility challenge for Jewish students, who they claim are excluded from enjoying food on residence and on campus. The two urged the administration to follow other Canadian universities that already offer kosher food, lest they lose potential Jewish students to neighbouring schools. It would also relieve the strain that is put onto organizations like Hillel UofT to bear the cost of offering these options.
Aside from the letter, which requested a meeting with the administration, the campaign included a petition form that undergraduate and graduate students, both Jewish and allied, were able to sign to demonstrate support. By the end of its campaign, the petition accumulated over 400 signatures over at least three months.
The university accepts the campaign’s demands
On November 23, the public campaign ended and the petition was sent to the Office of the President. Hillel UofT further requested a meeting to discuss the petition.
On December 19, Hillel UofT members presented their campaign to the U of T administration, as represented by Vice Provost Students Sandy Welsh and Director Ancillary Services Anne McDonald. The university accepted the campaign’s demands on the same day, and committed to making kosher food available in the 2020 winter term. Its January 23 press release reads, “The strength of the partnership between Hillel and the U of T administration is testament to our collective ability to provide to our students with ongoing support and access to the services they need.”
While kosher food is officially available at three St. George locations, Hillel UofT looks forward to expanding the reach of the campaign in the future, possibly to UTM and UTSC. “We will look to reform a long dormant food services committee with the University to address long term solutions for providing greater access to kosher food that will extend to more locations, potentially including UofT’s satellite campuses,” wrote Nagus. “This committee will also address other food equity issues that affect the broader campus community.”
Controversy with the UTGSU
On November 15, Hillel UofT accused the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU) of anti-Semitism after the latter’s External Commissioner, Maryssa Barras, expressed hesitation to support the Kosher Forward Campaign due to Hillel’s “pro-Israel” views. The story received widespread media attention in Canada and abroad.
Hillel UofT condemned the UTGSU’s conflation of the accessibility needs of Jewish students with Israeli politics. These tensions follow a previous conflict over the UTGSU’s establishment of a permanent Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Committee on Israel, which Hillel had opposed.
Following further discussions between the organizations, the UTGSU apologized for the incident in a November 21 press release. It further announced that Barras had resigned and that it would undergo anti-oppression training.
Hillel UofT responded positively, writing that the UTGSU had “expressed a willingness to bring forward a motion to support the Kosher Forward campaign.” In addition to its apology, the UTGSU “has begun working with Hillel and other Jewish communal organizations to ensure incidents such as this one will never happen again,” Nagus wrote.
At its Annual General Meeting (AGM) in December, the UTGSU held a discussion on anti-Semitism in response to the November controversy. The meeting featured members from Hillel UofT, Independent Jewish Voices UofT, and the Kosher Forward Campaign itself, who offered competing views on the question of anti-Semitism in the UTGSU and Hillel’s representation of Jewish students.
The discussion on anti-Semitism continued on January 27, when the AGM was readjourned due to a failure to meet quorum in December.